Nepal reels as Maoist strike enters second day


Kathmandu : Four years after they signed a peace pact with the ruling parties and pledged not to call any more general strikes, Nepal’s former Maoist guerrillas Monday kept up the nationwide closure enforced a day earlier, vowing to continue the blockade for “years” till Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal stepped down.

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“Our people will not leave the capital,” said Maoist member of parliament Agni Prasad Sapkota who led a march of protesters in the capital Monday morning, the second day of an indefinite nationwide general strike called by the former rebels that paralysed transport, industries and businesses, shops, markets and educational institutions.

“If needed, we will continue our strike for one year, two years,” Sapkota told cheering followers.

Thousands of protesters kept up their siege on markets and government offices nationwide and blocked the main highways connecting Nepal with its neighbours India and China.

Hundreds of trucks bearing essential goods and food stuff and making their way to Nepal from India’s West Bengal state lay stranded near the border while 5,000 Indians were reported stuck at the Jogbani border point alone.

The highways and roads remained shorn of traffic with only cycles making their way and a handful of vehicles belonging to diplomats, the media and essential services, which were exempted from the restrictions.

Hotels and airport traffic were hard-hit. Though coaches carrying foreign tourists were allowed to proceed, Nepalis returning home or going abroad were seen trudging wearily, dragging their luggage with them.

Hotels, which had experienced near-full occupancy in April, began to report booking cancellations as there was no indication how long the protests would continue. Banks remained closed and even ATMs were inoperational.

“Our protest is in order to protect the peace process, the new constitution and the constituent assembly,” Maoist deputy chief and former finance minister Baburam Bhattarai said. “Only the prime minister’s resignation can create an environment conducive to talks.”

The embattled premier however has ruled out resigning, saying it would create a bad precedent for democracy if a government was toppled by street protests.

Instead, Nepal is asking the Maoists to call off their protest and focus on negotiations. He has also challenged the former guerrillas to remove him constitutionally, if they can.

For that, the Maoists need the support of 301 MPs in the 601-member parliament. Though they are the largest party with almost 30 percent seats, yet they have not been able to muster the required support as the second largest party, the Nepali Congress, has thrown its unwavering weight behind the PM.

Talks between the Maoists and two biggest ruling parties will continue Monday and Sapkota told followers that an agreement could be reached by the evening.

Though the demonstrations were largely peaceful, the UN said it was seriously concerned about the impact of an extended strike.

“It is increasingly clear that the current situation cannot hold,” said Richard Bennett, chief of the UN rights agency in Nepal.

“Nepal’s political leadership on all sides needs to come together to find a peaceful solution to the current stalemate, and avoid an extended strike that will have a negative impact on the ability of all citizens to exercise their rights.”

It is not the government alone that is under pressure. The Maoists too are under mounting pressure to end the impasse.

“If a new constitution is not enforced by the May 28 deadline, it would badly impact the Maoists,” said Rajendra Mahato, Commerce and Supplies Minister.

“Parliament would be dissolved and they would lose their status as the largest parliamentary party. Since they are not in the government either, they would be left high and dry. It is therefore in their interest to reconcile so that the constitution can be amended and the constitutional deadline be extended.”